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article imageISIL jihadists' offensive in Iraq helps Kurds take new territory

By Ken Hanly     Jun 15, 2014 in World
Kirkuk - The self-defense forces of the Kurdish autonomous area in northern Iraq called the Peshmerga have taken advantage of the offensive of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) to occupy and defend the city of Kirkuk.
As the regular Iraqi defenses crumbled under attacks by the ISIL and in some cases local insurgents, Peshmerga moved into Kirkuk and told Iraqi soldiers to leave. The governor of Kirkuk Majmaidin Karim claims to have requested the help of the Peshmerga as the army had already fled.
The Kurdish control of Kirkuk will fuel tensions with the central government and between Kurds and the Turkmen and Arab residents in the city. Saddam Hussein had pursued a policy that added to the Arab population of Kirkuk. Many Kurds were driven out of the city. However, now Kurds appear to be in the majority.
Assuming the Kurds are able to protect Kirkuk from any ISIL onslaught, they will likely be unwilling to return the city with the nearby oil deposits back to control of the central government. Wladimir van Wilgenburg an expert on Iraqi Kurds said:“It will mean that the Iraqi state has lost Kirkuk forever". The Kurdish minority in Iraq comprises about 20% of the population of more than 32 million. Control of the Kirkuk governorate by the Kurds would add about 10 billion barrels of oil reserves to the area they control. Hilai Khashan, of the American University in Beirut Lebanon claims that taking the city was a prelude to the Kurds declaring an independent state. There was a referendum planned so that citizens could vote on the status of Kirkuk but it was never held.
Within two days, the Peshmerga forces took control not just of the city of Kirkuk but most of the disputed territory in the area claimed by the Kurds. A statement by military authorities claimed that “the Kurdish troops have no intention of leaving the area.” and “We are here to stay,”
The Kurdish occupation of Kirkuk worries Turkey as they face their own Kurdish insurgency led by separatists from the Kurdistan Workers Party(PKK). Turkey has invested a considerable amount in the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and even had deals to supply it with oil but they still oppose any unilateral expansion of territory under Kurdish control. Lina Khatib, of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut thinks that the Kurdish occupation of Kirkuk was largely intended simply to defend against ISIL attacks but the Kurds could well decide to go beyond that: “As the rest of Iraq faces the serious prospect of disintegration, Kurds feel the need to hold their areas and may well eventually push for independence from what might become a failing Iraqi state, or at least, a state without legitimacy in the eyes of a large proportion of its population – the Sunnis". The Peshmerga have defended territory they occupy from the ISIL in Syria. The Peshmerga are experienced and well-armed fighters many of whom have had years of fighting experience. Their forces are estimated at about 200,000 by military analyst Riad Kahwaji, far outnumbering the ISIL fighters. Kahwaji claims:“They are definitely much better organised and structured than the Iraqi army and they would pose a significant foe to ISIL,” Mr Kahwaji said.
Meanwhile a number of Iraqis are already returning to Mosul even though it is occupied by the ISIL. Many of those who fled are worried as much by the violence of a government counter-attack as they are by violence from the ISIL. The ISIL is also offering cheap gas, food, restoration of power and water and the removal of traffic barricades.
More about ISIL in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Kirkuk
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